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Homeland: choosing safety over freedom

February 18, 2013

Homeland is Cory Doctorow’s sequel to Little Brother, which is a novel that takes an updated look at some of the same problems as Orwell’s 1984. Eleanor and Walker and I thought it was such an important book that we gave it to every teen we knew for every gift-giving occasion for about a year after it came out in May 2008. (Here you can read it for free if we haven’t yet given it to you.) (Update: Here is the free e-version of Homeland.)

Homeland continues the story of how the little guy can fight back by recounting what happens next to the inadvertent hero of the first novel, Marcus Yallow (formerly known as M1k3y). Basically, he goes to a big hippie festival called Burning Man, is entrusted with a thumb drive containing over 800,000 files on how powerful people are misusing their power (like WikiLeaks), and then uses his technical know-how and his group of teenage genius hacker friends to make it all public. It’s way more exciting than a plot summary makes it sound, though. This is a novel that illustrates a precept from the movie Serenity (one Jayne says Shepherd Book once told him): “If you can’t do something smart, do something right.”

One of the first things that happens in the novel shows this. At Burning Man, they burn a model of the Library of Alexandria, complete with 50,000 handwritten paper scrolls. Why? Because “libraries burn.” The point, as one of the librarians explains, is:
“ninety percent of the works in copyright are orphan works; no one knows who owns the rights to them, and no one can figure out how to put them back into print. Meanwhile , the copies of them that we do know about are disintegrating or getting lost. So there’s a library out there, the biggest library ever, ninety percent of the stuff ever created, and it’s burning, in slow motion. Libraries burn….But maybe someday we’ll figure out how to make so many copies of humanity’s creative works that we’ll save most of them from the fire.”
The librarian gives Marcus a thumbdrive, explaining that “it’s a compressed copy of the Gutenberg archive. Fifty thousand books and counting. There’s also a list of public domain books that we don’t have, and a list of known libraries, by city, where they can be found. Feel free to get a copy and scan or retype it.”

Marcus also meets the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) at Burning Man. Following what the EFF does is the easiest way I know of to keep up with attempts to block internet freedom (please send your congresspeople a letter to protest the latest attempt to pass a version of CISPA).

Here is the crisis of the novel:
“Have you noticed how messed up everything is today? How we put a ‘good’ president in the White House and he kept right on torturing and bombing and running secret prisons? How every time we turn around, someone’s trying to take away the Internet from us, make it into some kind of giant stupid shopping mall where the rent-a-cops can kick you out if they don’t like your clothes? Have you noticed how much money the one percent have? How we’re putting more people in jail every day, and more people are unemployed every day, and more people are losing their houses every day?….And the creeps and the spooks have the power to spy on us more than ever before, to control us and censor us and find us and snatch us….if we leave the field, it’ll just be them. People who want everything, want to be in charge of everyone.”

The solution, like burning man, seems to be right out of the sixties—a protest. The culmination of Marcus’ attempts to salvage freedom comes when he sees that

“hundreds of thousands—millions?—of my neighbors and friends had taken over the city of San Francisco because they were pissed off about the same things I was pissed off about….it wasn’t just the lobbying to make the deal over student loans even worse, it wasn’t just the foreclosed houses and all the jobs that had vanished. It wasn’t just the planetary devastation and global warming, it wasn’t just the foreign dictators we’d propped up or the private prison industry we supported at home. It was all of it. It was the fact that there was all this terrible stuff and no one seemed to be able to do anything about it. Not our political leaders. Not our police. Not our army. Not our businesses. In fact, a lot of the time, it seemed like politicians, police, soldiers, and businesses were the ones doing the stuff we wanted to put a stop to, and they said things like ‘We don’t like it either, but it has to be done, right?’”

Towards the end, Marcus loses faith and tries to tell himself that the story he began telling in Little Brother and is continuing in Homeland will never end happily:
“Once upon a time, my government turned my city into a police state, kidnapped me, and tortured me.” When I got free, I decided that the problem wasn’t the system, but who was running it. Bad guys had gotten into places of high office. We needed good apples….And then, well, the good apples turned out to act pretty much exactly like the bad apples. Oh, they had reasons. There were emergencies….But there were always emergencies, weren’t there?”

Marcus finally does something right. He realizes that if the bad apples aren’t facing consequences for their actions, it’s not because “the system” has failed. “It was because people like me chose not to act when we could. The system was people, and I was part of it.”

There are two afterwords to the novel, with details about how to become part of a better system. One of them is more poignant if you realize that its author, Aaron Swartz, died because of his beliefs sometime between the time he wrote it and the time the novel was published. He gives his website address in case you need help, but he’s not around to help anymore.

The big question of my time and place, as this novel illustrates, is the choice each American has to make every day between working to increase personal safety and working for collective freedom. I keep trying to work towards freedom, but it can be harder than it looks. Listening to a mother explain why she should shelter her child from reading a book or watching the news–without arguing that our children should be reading all the books and watching all the news–is failing to work towards freedom. Stepping meekly out of line when the TSA demands it or acquiescing to the locking of public schools and considering the idea of arming teachers can be failing to work towards freedom. I’ve started to make a list of the times I’m tempted to choose safety. It’s like those food charts dieters are urged to make–looking at the list can horrify me at the end of the day. When’s the last time you chose safety?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2013 10:07 am

    I think most people are willing to give up a little freedom for the sake of safety. We stop at stop signs and try not to go too far over the speed limit, for example. That kind of thing makes logical sense because we can see how it contributes to our safety and the inconvenience is fairly inconsequential. But it’s hard to figure out where the line is. If taking our shoes off at the airport prevents even one hijacking/bombing, giving up that small freedom to keep my shoes on is probably worth it. But at what point is it no longer worth it? That’s where it gets difficult. Taking off shoes is one thing, but full body scans and pat downs? I don’t think most of us want to live in the kind of world where safety is guaranteed simply because every move we make would have to be controlled.

    But what makes things more complicated is the question of whether the safety measures are actually even making us safer. That’s one of the concerns I see at the heart of the gun control debate. Would the kinds of controls being considered even help? A lot of them seem to be to be worth a try, but not being a gun owner, my particular freedoms are being impinged upon, so it’s easy for me to say.

    • Gwen Bailey permalink
      February 18, 2013 3:45 pm

      Recall Ben Franklin who said that a people who give up a little liberty for a little security deserve neither liberty nor security. Well, at least the paraphrase isn’t too botched.

    • February 20, 2013 8:35 am

      Certainly most people today are willing to give up a little freedom for the illusion of safety. As you point out, just one more little thing can start to add up and when you turn around and look how far you’ve come, you’re already in the cell. I think the Franklin quotation is a warning against taking even the first step, at least without questioning.

  2. February 18, 2013 10:09 am

    Wow. I don’t really know. I think I’m going to have to look for those books though.

    • February 20, 2013 8:36 am

      Check out what the author says about making them available as free downloads. He’s thought a lot about copyright and file sharing.

  3. Joe Murphy permalink
    February 18, 2013 10:16 am

    This is an outstanding review, because it convinces me that Homeland will have all the flaws I saw in Little Brother and allows me to skip it. 😉 For that matter, it sounds like a subset of the flaws of Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, so maybe I just don’t like Doctorow as a fiction writer. Little Brother was paced nicely, and the teenage characters did feel authentic, but it was also a cantata of singing-to-the-choir (at least in my EFF-belonging experience). Like a Shaw play speeded up, except without the humor.

    • February 18, 2013 11:11 am

      Joe, I think Doctorow’s fiction attempts to popularize of all the ideas you fight for every day of your life. So yes, this is one you can skip. You, of course, are the exception; this is a fairly small choir you’re in.

      • Joe Murphy permalink
        February 18, 2013 11:43 am

        Eh, don’t make me out to be too much of a hero. I did my tour on the front lines in the 90s; now I write my checks and call my congressmen a couple of times a year. I miss Radical Librarian Joe’s energy and certainty, but he was also a boring blowhard who couldn’t see anyone else’s point of view.

        It’s Doctorow who fights for the ideas; I just try to nudge people into actually implementing them in ways that ought to be easy, productive, and/or fun. Allied pursuits, to be sure, but hardly brothers in arms.

        • February 20, 2013 8:38 am

          You know I have a certain amount of awe for anyone with technical prowess!

  4. Gwen Bailey permalink
    February 18, 2013 3:43 pm

    Such choices,it seems to me,come down to two things: valuing people over money, or valuing money over people. I am no expert in these sorts of puzzlers, but until I am, I believe I owe the people the benefit of the doubt.

    • February 20, 2013 8:39 am

      The trick is valuing collective people over money in your individual pocket, isn’t it?

  5. February 18, 2013 3:48 pm

    Sometime within the past few years I came to the realization that I am a coward. I came of age at the end of the Viet Nam years, with their turmoil, and never had chance for more than a bit of yelling before I disappeared into raising a family. And now, As I watch Orwell & Bradbury used as blueprints rather than cautions, I sometimes feel lost. Old, crippled, on the financial edge; bagging my bottles & cans for homeless in the area is as activist as I get.

    I cried when Aaron Swartz died, and felt so helpless. I get so angry at the callousness and hatred that permeates our society today. And when you call out people on intolerance and racism they look at you like you have two heads. Sorry. Didn’t mean to vent.

    About the book: I downloaded Little Brother. (Sorry, can’t read things out of order) Maybe after I read Homeland I’ll have some better ideas. You guys sound like you’re all way ahead of me in finding your place in the fight.

    • February 20, 2013 8:40 am

      Orwell and Bradbury used as blueprints…a memorable line, and one that would make anyone feel like a coward. It’s hard to work backwards from imagining what would be in your personal Room 101.

  6. February 18, 2013 8:16 pm

    Jeanne, excellent review and discussion. I think what people rarely consider is that, because choosing the right thing over the easy thing is hard and endlessly unpleasant, doing the right thing has to be practiced. You don’t just wake up one morning with moral courage under your belt, ready to dive into those dangerous waters. My kids and I talked about this a lot when they were little: they would see people doing bad things and wonder why no one spoke up, and I would air my theory about moral courage having to be practiced every day in small ways. They DID practice, and (I have to say even though I am their mother), the results were stellar.

    • February 20, 2013 8:45 am

      Good point, especially because if a person practices speaking up, that person has a chance of learning when it’s more important to speak up, and when you can let things go rather than be perceived as having the kind of moral superiority that means no one wants to listen to you anymore.
      I have the feeling we talked about this in my family mostly in connection with Harry Potter, which goes to show the kind of effect fiction can have on real lives.

  7. February 18, 2013 8:17 pm

    I don’t think I’ve heard of either of these books, at least not in any great detail. That sounds weird because they seem like the kind of books I’d enjoy. I’ll have to go look for Little Brother right now .

    • February 20, 2013 8:47 am

      If you want immediate gratification, try the free download. You might end up buying copies for friends, as we did!

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